Two thirds of Europeans have changed their consumption behavior as a result of information about a food risk, according to a survey.

A Eurobarometer survey by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), published on the first World Food Safety Day, found 66 percent of people had changed eating patterns based on information they had heard or read about a food risk.

A third made a permanent change and the other 33 percent changed their behavior for a while. About half of respondents made a permanent change in Sweden, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Finland, but the proportion is lower in Portugal, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland.

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Three in ten say they have not changed consumption behavior because of information about a food risk. This includes 21 percent who say the information worried them but did not cause a change in behavior and 9 percent who were not worried and did not make any changes.

Changes in consumption behavior are more common among women, those in middle age, and those with higher levels of education.

The survey by Kantar was done in 28 member states from April 9 to 26. Some 27,655 respondents from different social and demographic groups were interviewed face-to-face at home in their mother tongue.

Food safety an important factor

Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, welcomed a day that marks the importance of food safety and recognizes the work people do to make sure food that ends up on plates is safe.

“The results of this study show that Europeans have a high level of awareness of food safety topics and care what they eat. This gives us even greater motivation to continue our work in ensuring that our high standards are maintained and also strive to achieve more sustainable production and consumption patterns.”

The most important factors for Europeans when buying food are where it comes from (53 percent), cost (51 percent), food safety (50 percent) and taste (49 percent). Overall, 41 percent of people said they were “personally interested in the topic of food safety.”

More than three quarters of respondents in Cyprus (77 percent) say food safety is one of the most important factors when buying food, as do more than two thirds in Malta (73 percent) and Croatia (69 percent). However, only about a third say this in Austria (32 percent) and Sweden (34 percent).

Only about one fifth of Europeans say safety is their main concern when choosing food. The majority (71 percent) say either food safety is among concerns (43 percent) or they take it for granted that food sold is safe (23 percent). A small proportion (5 percent) say safety does not concern them, because they assume their body can handle food safety risks.

Respondents in Cyprus are the most likely to say safety is their main concern when choosing food, followed by Ireland, Romania and Malta. The lowest proportions are in Finland and the Netherlands. There is an assumption food safety can be taken for granted in the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.

Bernhard Url, EFSA executive director, said it was almost 10 years since the last EU-wide survey on the topic.

“It is reassuring to see that Europeans are not overly concerned about the food on their plates. I believe this is not by coincidence but rather thanks to advances in science and technology, which have helped to improve food standards and hygiene practices,” he said.

Consumer concerns

Most frequently reported concerns relate to antibiotics, hormones and steroids in meat; pesticides; environmental pollutants; and food additives.

Respondents are most likely to be concerned about antibiotic, hormone or steroid residues in meat (44 percent), followed by pesticide residues in food (39 percent), environmental pollutants in fish, meat or dairy (37 percent) and additives like colors, preservatives or flavorings in food or drinks (36 percent).

More than a quarter are concerned about food hygiene, food poisoning from bacteria and diseases found in animals. In Malta and United Kingdom, food hygiene is most frequently picked as a concern but least likely to be mentioned by those in Poland, while food poisoning from bacteria is the most common answer in Portugal and Ireland but lowest in Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania.

Europeans seem less concerned than before about issues such as GMOs and microplastics was mentioned for the first time.

Trust and knowledge of EU system

About a fifth of respondents agree that “scientific advice on food risks is independent of commercial or political interests.” People in the Netherlands are the most likely to agree followed by those in Ireland and Belgium but agreement is lowest in Slovakia and Bulgaria.

Europeans are most likely to trust scientists (82 percent) and consumer organizations for information on food-related risks, followed by farmers, national authorities, EU institutions, NGOs and half say they trust journalists.

However, there is limited awareness of how the EU food safety system works.

Just more than two in five say “there are regulations in place to make sure that the food you eat is safe.” Three in 10 know that “to decide how risky something could be for you to eat, the EU relies on scientists to give expert advice” and one in five knows “the EU has a separate institution that provides scientific advice on the safety of food.”

Url said there are positives to take from the results but complacency must be avoided.

“We need to keep pace with Europeans’ concerns and behaviors, as envisaged in the recent reform of the General Food Law. The fact that there is high trust in scientists is encouraging. We can further increase Europeans’ confidence in their food if we better listen to their concerns and improve opportunities for dialogue, so they have a better understanding of the contribution science makes to the EU system,” he said.

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